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Mediation Perspectives: Challenges to the Multi-Track Approach – Insights from Syria

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Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.


This blog aims to shed light on some of the challenges facing the multi-track approach to mediation through the example of Syria. The multi-track approach refers to undertaking peacebuilding efforts at different levels and interlinking them where useful in order to reach sustainable peace. The concept has regained attention as numerous states suffering from conflict have failed to maintain long-lasting peace despite signing peace agreements at the national level. However, the implementation of the multi-track approach has rarely been tested through evidence-based research. This piece aims to raise some questions aimed at critically examining its application.


“The potential offered by peace mediation can only be fully unlocked through coordinated interaction between […] tracks. A lasting peace process thus often requires a multi-track approach, which does not only mean conducting activities on all tracks but also interlinking these activities in ways that increase their effectiveness”. German Federal Foreign Office and Mediation Support Initiative (IMSD), 2017: 3

Recent policy documents, including the 2017 UN Secretary-General report on ‘United Nations Activities in Support of Mediation’, emphasize the need for a multi-track approach to mediation and request increased engagement on peacemaking at the local level. The so-called multi-track approach is not a new concept. However, over recent years it has regained attention as countries that have been torn by conflict for decades – such as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – have failed to establish long-lasting peace despite the signing of peace agreements at the national level.

Despite the renewed interest, the implementation of the multi-track approach has rarely been tested through evidence-based research. Through swisspeace’s experience working in the Syrian context, several challenges have been observed in the application of the multi-track approach. The aim of this blog is to shed light on some of these challenges with the purpose of raising questions that would help critically examine the application of the multi-track approach.

Multi-track peace processes – what’s in a name?

Although the track terminology was coined by Louise Diamond and John W. McDonald, it only gained full prominence in 1997, thanks to John Paul Lederach. In his peacebuilding pyramid, he distinguishes between three tracks of actors in a conflict society: Track 1 being the top leadership, Track 2 the mid-level leadership and societal leaders, and Track 3 the grassroots level. More recently, the term Track 1.5 has been used, referring to processes involving Track 1 as well as Track 2 actors, or Track 1 actors working in their personal capacity. In parallel, researchers and practitioners have constantly reviewed and complemented the track logic in order to describe the various levels of decision-making and links between conflict actors. The multi-track approach thus refers to undertaking peacebuilding efforts at different levels and interlinking them where useful, in order to reach sustainable peace.

The multi-track approach in Syria and its challenges

The Syrian conflict has been referred to as the worst man-made disaster since World War II. The humanitarian consequences, number of international and regional actors involved, and Syria’s geopolitical importance have led to multiple international efforts for reaching a political solution. Seasoned mediators such as Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura have launched numerous initiatives to achieve peace in Syria. At the same time, there have been countless international and local initiatives working on peacebuilding across the different tracks. Unfortunately, peace has not been realized to date.

A recent publication on local mediation argues that peace efforts at different levels are seldom connected as part of an overarching strategy. They are “at best on parallel tracks, at worst, they undermine each other.” The extent of the linkages between different tracks in Syria and the effectiveness of these links are beyond the scope of this paper. However, the following challenges, identified through swisspeace’s work in the Syrian context, provide potential explanations for the difficulties of the practical implementation of the multi-track approach.

All eyes on Track 1?

The reason why many peacebuilders argue for linking different tracks to the Track 1 level is that even though Track 2 and 3 processes are important, agreements on these levels do not automatically add up to peace across a country without a broader agreement on Track 1. However, a first and major challenge with the multi-track approach is that it is usually geared towards a Track 1 process and accordingly contingent to its status. In the case of Syria, this has raised two issues. The first one relates to the impact of a deadlock on the Track 1 level on the functioning of other tracks. The second is that creating links to Track 1 can at times reorient the focus and resources of local actors towards issues that are not necessarily within their control. In this regard, Track 2 and 3 actors have constantly reevaluated questions of the prioritization and impact of their peacebuilding efforts vis-à-vis the official process.

Politicization of local processes

A second challenge relates to the potential politicization of local processes. Establishing links between the local and the national/international level might bear the risk of politicizing organic processes and putting local actors at the mercy of national and international players. It can also lead to a de-legitimization of local efforts and exposure to security threats. In Syria, polarization between the government and the oppositions is strong, and the Track 1 process has been stagnating. As a result, Track 2 and 3 actors at times have concerns about being linked with those on a Track 1 level due to security or reputational concerns. There is also a lack of trust in the actors involved at Track 1, coupled with the accusation that they are not representative of local priorities and grievances. At the same time, Track 2 and 3 actors still have an interest in affecting the outcomes of the official process. In order to protect their process and reputation, and yet still have an entry point for engaging with Track 1, numerous actors at the Track 2 or 3 level thus prefer to make the distinction that they are ‘civil’ while those on a Track 1 are ‘political’.

The one size dilemma

A third challenge relates to the multi-track approach being applied through normative lenses without careful assessment of the particularities of each context. For example, Syrian Track 2 dialogue initiatives often include NGO representatives and, to a lesser extent, notables or tribal and community leaders. There is frequently also a selection bias to actors with better reach to international players, especially those who can converse in English. In this regard, by avoiding the tailoring of the multi-track approach to local contexts, there is a risk of excluding important constituencies or artificially adopting processes that do not reflect power dynamics on the ground.

Conclusion

There has been a multiplicity of peace initiatives on different tracks and levels in Syria. Such processes have different goals, actors involved and potential areas of impact. While there have been notable efforts at linking tracks together, open questions remain on the effects and impact of such links. Is the multi-track approach solely contingent on the status on Track 1? How can the inclusion of Track 2 and 3 initiatives take place without politicizing and adversely affecting local processes? How can the particularities of each context affect the tailoring of the multi-track approach?

As of today, the positive contribution of the implementation of multi-track engagements has been widely assumed rather than tested through evidence-based research. Little is known about the manner in which the different tracks can positively contribute to each other. Further research is thus needed to enhance the practice and understanding of multi-track peace processes.


About the Authors

Corinne von Burg is a Program Officer in the Mediation Program at swisspeace. She mainly focuses on process design with an emphasis on questions of participation as well as on national dialogue. She is also the course director of the annual training course on National Dialogue and Peace Mediation.

Yosra Nagui works in the Mediation program at swisspeace, focusing on Syria. She has been mainly working on supporting swisspeace’s activities on the inclusion of Syrian civil society in the UN OSE-led Intra-Syrian Talks in Geneva. She also manages a project supporting local peace actors in Syria through training on mediation.

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